Tears in a Bottle
by Diane Stark
Diane, Michael’s mom is here to see you,” the school secretary said, interrupting my kindergarten classroom one Monday morning.
I turned and looked at the secretary. “I’m teaching right now. Can it wait?”
“She really needs to see you,” she insisted.
I left my students in the secretary’s care and made my way to the office, feeling a bit frustrated at the interruption, especially since Michael was absent from school that day. I reminded myself to be patient, that his mother was young and unmarried. And Michael was a special-education student with several health issues. His mom worried about him and she’d frequently call me with her concerns.
But she’d never pulled me away from my classroom in the middle of the day.
When I walked into the office, the principal ushered me into a private conference room.
“He’s gone,” Michael’s mother, Michelle, said as soon as she saw me. “I couldn’t wake him up on Sunday morning. The doctors don’t know why, but Michael’s gone.”
I could feel the tears spilling down my own cheeks. My college professors hadn’t taught me what to do if one of my students died. So I reacted, not as a teacher, but as a human being.
As she collapsed in my arms, I cried as though Michael had been my own child.
Telling a room full of six-year-olds that their classmate had died was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. They wanted to know why, and I simply didn’t know.
Michael’s funeral was a few days later. I sat in a row by myself. There weren’t many people there and nearly all of them were family.
As the pastor reminded us how much God loves us, a man in the back stood up and shouted, “No, he doesn’t. If he loved us so much, he wouldn’t have taken Michael from us.”
A shocked silence fell over the room. The pastor swallowed and then continued with the eulogy. The man interrupted him twice more, once to say that God couldn’t be a loving God and again to call the pastor a liar and a fool.
It was the strangest, saddest funeral I’d ever attended.
The following week, I stopped by Michelle’s house to give her some of Michael’s artwork from the classroom.
“What did you think of the service?” she asked me.
“Uh, it was nice,” I stammered.
“My uncle interrupted the pastor. What did you think about that?”
“Uh . . . ” I stammered again. I wasn’t sure what to say.
“We’re all looking for answers,” she said tearfully. “It’s just that Uncle Steve didn’t ask for them in the right way.”
I nodded. “I’m sure this has been really hard on all of you.”
“Look, I know you’re a Christian and you believe that stuff about God being loving and good,” Michelle continued. “If that’s true, how come God took Michael from me? How come God allowed Michael to be born sick in the first place?”
I swallowed hard. I’d just been asked the hardest question in all of Christianity. If God loves us, how come he allows bad things to happen to us?
I felt my eyes fill with tears. I didn’t know how to answer her question, but I knew a lot was riding on my answer.
Lord, I thought in desperation, I need your help.
“Look, I don’t know the answer to your question. I know it doesn’t make sense that God would take him away. It doesn’t seem fair, even to me. But I believe in my heart that God loves you even more than you loved Michael. And if you you’re willing, God will help you get through this.”
“But I can hardly get out of bed in the morning,” she said, breaking down.
“You don’t have to,” I said. “At least, not by yourself. God is not the cause of your pain, but the solution for it. I know it’s hard, but trusting God is the best decision you’ll ever make.”
“I just can’t right now,” she whispered.
Over the next few weeks, I visited Michelle several times. Then one day, she asked me not to come anymore. And who could blame her? It wasn’t like I could actually help her.
On the last day of school, Michelle showed up for our end-of-the-year celebration. I hugged her and told her I missed her.
“I missed you too,” she said with a genuine smile.
When I looked in her eyes, she seemed different. Not healed, but definitely healing. I saw hope there too, and I wondered if Michelle had found the answer she’d been searching for.
We went out for coffee after school. There was no small talk. What I needed to know was too important.
“So how are you?” I asked. “I mean, really.”
Michelle smiled. “I’m doing well. My mom took me to a grief recovery group at a local church and there was a mom there who’d lost her son too. She was sad, of course, but she had such peace about it. She spoke about God’s plan as though she still believed in that stuff, even after he took her son. I didn’t understand, so one day, I just asked her, ‘How can you still love God after what you’ve been through?’”
Michelle took a deep breath and wiped her eyes. “That mom told me that she didn’t know why these things happen and that she didn’t have all the answers. Then she showed me this verse in the Bible that says that God collects all of our tears in a bottle. (Ps 56:8) And I realized in that moment that God really does care about my pain.”
I nodded because I couldn’t speak past the lump in my throat.
“So I became a Christian,” Michelle said. “Not because I understand why God took Michael, but because I trust God anyway.”
I hugged her and said, “I am so glad, Michelle, and I’m sorry I wasn’t more helpful to you while you were searching.”
“You did everything you could. I wasn’t ready to hear the truth then, but God was working on me that whole time. You were planting seeds, Diane, just by caring about me.”
I learned that day that having all the answers is God’s job, not mine. All I’m expected to do is care.
Diane Stark writes from Indiana. She is a frequent contributor to The Lutheran Digest.
Reprinted from Faith and Friends.